Aaron Gilbreath Essays

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by Aaron Gilbreath

Heartfelt, earnest, and humorous, the essays in Everything We Don't Know, examine the journey of growing up in contemporary America. Gilbreath contemplates the ocean-bound debris from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, his nostalgia for the demolished buildings of his youth, the origins of the word "radical," and more. A deftly-crafted debut from a wise, bold voice.

"Everything We Don’t Know is expansive, obsessive, and consistently entertaining. Gilbreath’s inquisitiveness is infectious, and his misadventures are filled with a self-doubt that’s charming and all too relatable."

"[These essays] explore isolation, weaving together the intangible and material touchstones of life periods with remarkable ease … Beneath an eternal-boy persona, a surprising tenderness reveals the struggle for human connection … Everything We Don’t Know demonstrates the pain of sometimes misguided perceptions, and the many routes an insatiable mind can take."
—Foreword Reviews

 "Whether by working in collage with different subjects, or making the ostensible focus of the piece someone other than himself, Gilbreath is able to explore the personal obliquely, writing about the self by writing about things outside the self. If all essay writing is a performance, then he plays his part perfectly, deflecting attention from his star turn and thus winning the reader’s interest and allegiance."
—Los Angeles Review of Books

"What a great read! Aaron Gilbreathhas put together as fine a book of essays as you're likely to find these days. At times I felt as if I could be reading a John Jeremiah Sullivan collection. Aaron Gilbreath's strong, candid, yet insightful first-person narrative is compelling,  clearly honest, and frankly, it reminded me of many things I'd prefer to forget, yet did so powerfully enough to keep me coming back for more."
─James Williamson, guitarist of Iggy and the Stooges

"I’ve been jonesing for the next great collection of personal essays, and Aaron Gilbreath’s Everything You Don't Know cures my pangs. Booze, drugs, failed relationships, poverty, knee-jerk travel, desperation, joy, music, and recovery—it’s like a primer on late twentieth/early twenty-first century American living, written with honesty, astuteness, and self-deprecation. I loved this collection."
—George Singleton, author of Calloustown

"Aaron Gilbreath’s first collection of essays, Everything We Don’t Know, is a rowdy, exuberant, obsessive and often hilarious examination of the ennui and energy of a youth spent rambling through the wild west and other meaningful landscapes. Combining a novelist’s understanding of narrative structure and pacing with the essayist’s digressive talents, Gilbreath creates a voice that embodies the best journalistic qualities of Hunter S. Thompson, Mary Karr, and Joan Didion. Gilbreath’s essays combine humorous, unsentimental, unflinching prose with rigorous research, harrowing drama, and confessional moments of deep reflection. Everything We Don’t Know is a testament to the adage that the greatest gift any writer possesses is a curious mind; and the abundant fruits of Gilbreath’s curiosity end up being the greatest gift of this book."
—Steven Church, founding editor of The Normal School and author of One with the Tiger

"Everything We Don't Know is an electric, funny, and far-reaching collection about Gilbreath’s early loves and misadventures growing up out West. Sometimes ecstatic, sometimes angst-filled, he follows where curiosity leads, anchoring himself in resiliency and feeling, intelligence and humility. The essay "It's Really Something You Should Have Examined," about his girlfriend Abby and his ferret Wiggy, highlights Gilbreath at his quirky and tender best."
—Marcia Aldrich, author of Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story

"Aaron Gilbreath writes the kind of essays I'm always crossing my fingers for when I open a new collection. He grabs the threads of history, nature, pop culture, geography, and travel, and weaves a kind of wild web around the personal essay. Honest, open, deft, and able to turn a phrase like a bad ass—Gilbreath is now on my shortlist of go-to essayists."
—Amber Sparks, author of The Unfinished World and May We Shed These Human Bodies  

"Gilbreath is among that rare breed of writer with both a journalist's keen eye for observation and discovery, and a memoirist's skill for shining a light on our human foibles, mistakes and thwarted ambitions. His brilliant examinations expand and contract seamlessly between the outer world and his own inner life—from Googie architecture to the Redwood Forest to his harrowing efforts to kick heroin. Gripping, honest, and endlessly intelligent, Everything We Don't Know marks the debut of a major literary talent."
—Justin Hocking, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld

"Aaron Gilbreath’s new collection of essays shatters the tenets of memoir, and leaves the shards out in the sun to stew, before putting them back together in ways more frazzled, distressed, hilarious, scarred, and thereby more human, and true. Along the way, Gilbreath’s exhilaratingly cockeyed meditations on the seemingly mundane detritus of our world—when leashed to engagements of friends, jobs, lovers, family, strange music and stranger architecture—are allowed to dovetail with (in his words), “these mythic notions [that] colonize your head.” I, for one, am grateful to have had my head colonized by these wonderful essays."
—Matthew Gavin Frank, author of The Mad Feast and Preparing the Ghost

Aaron Gilbreath is an essayist, journalist, and burrito enthusiast. His essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Saveur, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Vice, The Morning News, and Brick, and been listed as notable in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. A contributing editor at Longreads, he's working on a book about rural California and a travel book about Japan. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Pages: 359
ISBN: 978-1940430836
Publication Date: November 2016

EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW Aaron Gilbreath’s name, you’ve probably read his work. The Portland author’s essays have ended up everywhere from Harper’s and Slate to The Believer and the New York Times. But he hasn’t published a book showing the range of his interests and abilities until now.

Everything We Don’t Know, which comes out this week on Chicago-based indie press Curbside Splendor, compiles nearly 20 of Gilbreath’s essays from the past decade. While they’re essays first and foremost—they go where they please without concern for an overarching narrative—a casual memoir builds behind the individual pieces in a mostly chronological fashion. The collection begins with Gilbreath just out of high school in Phoenix and takes us through his 2000 move to Portland, his failed foray into the New York City publishing world during the mid-’00s, his post-fail move back into his parents’ house, and his return to Portland.

Throughout the years, Gilbreath presents himself as an odd variety of lost boy—lost even among other lost boys. He’s resistant to cookie-cutter ideas of settling down, but his idea of fun and games is a little different than most. He writes the essays from the vantage point of someone who’s already quit most of his vices, isn’t much for parties, and ends up flying solo on most of his adventures. More than anything, he wants to be a researcher—whether in the woods, the library, or ignored corners of a city—writing essays and books about all the things he’s curious about. Which, it turns out, encompass a wide range.

The subjects he takes on in Everything We Don’t Know include (but aren’t limited to): kitsch architecture, mental health, Star Wars collectibles, late 19th-century Jewish immigration to New York City, drug addiction, surf and skate movies of the 1980s, and the ocean-bound debris of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Like the best essayists, Gilbreath seeks out ambiguities in his subjects, often embracing their murky uncertainties. Even when it’s uncomfortable, he lingers in the unknown. “The human mind likes what talk shows call 'closure,’” he writes in the book’s stunning title essay. “It tries to make full circles. It prefers completed puzzles to pieces. We struggle to live with enduring mystery.”

Though he wants the satisfaction of that brief mental closure, he also wants a world that’s in some ways forever mysterious, and it’s this push and pull between the known and unknown that ultimately drives the essay collection.

Everything We Don’t Know is expansive, obsessive, and consistently entertaining. Gilbreath’s inquisitiveness is infectious, and his misadventures are filled with a self-doubt that’s charming and all too relatable. “I wondered why I had ever questioned my enthusiasm,” he writes, “all the while knowing that I would question myself again the next time.”

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